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DARPA Reveals Next Steps in Ambitious Phoenix Satellite Repurposing Project

By | January 23, 2013

      [Satellite TODAY 01-23-13] The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has unveiled initial development details from its Phoenix Program, which aims to recycle older, non-functional satellites for repurposing. The agency launched a video on its website that showcases various prototype arms that can grip a satellite hurdling through space 22,000 miles above the Earth.

         DARPA Phoenix Program Manager Dave Barnhart said the technology not only repurposes retired satellites while they remain in orbit, but also seeks to fundamentally change how space systems could be designed here on earth and then sustained once in space.
         “Today, satellites are not built to be modified or repaired in space,” said Barnhart. “Therefore, to enable an architecture that can re-use or re-purpose on-orbit components requires us to create new technologies and new capabilities. This progress report gives the community a better sense of how we are doing on the challenges we may face and the technologies needed to help us meet our goals.”
         The agency is planning to release an upcoming Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) that will seek additional technologies and capabilities, including low cost software and hardware for rendezvous and proximity operations. DARPA also will seek the ability to interlink multiple number of degrees of freedom (N-DOF) test facilities, virtual ground station operations to support the unique flight requirements of Phoenix on orbit, and a hosted launcher for the Phoenix-developed payload orbit delivery (POD) modules.
         The entire Phoenix program involves the launch of a central robot, a builder satellite and a propulsion system, which would deliver a shipment of small, modular  “satlets” up to the builder for carriage to a graveyard zone. In this zone, a defunct satellite could then be grabbed, manipulated, even sheared apart if necessary, and its valuable components scavenged for use by the new, functional satlet control units.
         Barnhart confirmed that the agency would host a special event on Feb. 8 for those interested in submitting proposals.
         “Our ultimate goal for the Phoenix program is to increase the return on investment of high value space assets by reusing components from nonfunctioning satellites that have already been placed in space through permission from their owners and techniques and technologies that allow for responsible, transparent, and safe processes and behaviors,” said Barnhart. “We have a long way to go, but we are laying the foundation for improving how we build space systems, with the goal of changing the economic model for space operations.” 
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